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Naftali Bennett, Israel’s Next Prime Minister

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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MK Naftali Bennett in the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 17, 2020
MK Naftali Bennett in the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 17, 2020Credit: Alex Kolomoisky
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

We need to start thinking about it – Naftali Bennett, the next prime minister of Israel. There’s definitely a chance that it could happen. If not Benjamin Netanyahu, then Bennett. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else.

That’s bad news, but there’s worse – a chain of events that’s not imaginary: Netanyahu’s Likud party slumps, Bennett’s Yamina rises, the center-left lacks proper leadership and Bennett attracts the longed-for “Anyone but Bibi” coalition and forms a center-right government. At the moment, that’s the second-most-likely scenario other than Netanyahu staying in power.

PODCAST: Inside Israel's no-change, no-cost peace deal with the UAECredit: Haaretz

Far right would replace moderate right, religious would replace secular. The destructive process that Netanyahu initiated would be brought to a halt, replaced by something else, some of which would be much more destructive. Apart from the rotten culture of governance that Netanyahu has led, the only advantage would be the end of deception. With Bennett at the helm, Israel would be officially declared a capitalist, colonialist apartheid state.

A settler leader as prime minister, even if he lives within the Green Line in Ra’anana, would symbolize a new chapter in Zionist history. A man who wears a skullcap, small as it might be, would represent a new image of another Israel.

What began as a pressure group of rabbis and politicos with rifles and Torah scrolls crazily dancing and shouting on stolen rocky hilltops would enter the prime minister’s residence as respectable and accepted leadership. A descendant of Gush Emunim and a representative of religious-nationalist Zionism would head the Israeli government. It’s hard to imagine a more extreme turn of events.

Putting aside for the moment Bennett’s attributes – army commando, high-tech, leadership on COVID-19, America, integrity (as far as is known), a secular wife, polished English, personal charm and a winning smile – a Bennett premiership would represent the completion of the religious-nationalist revolution in Israel. A country that was established by the secular left would pass into the hands of the religious right.

Not many shifts are more dramatic than that. Not many countries are headed by a nationalist-religious statesman like Bennett. Think about them and what they represent.

It would be the peak, so far, of a process that began 52 years ago with a very short Passover stay by Jews at Hebron’s Park Hotel that got extended a bit, spreading among the hilltops of the occupied West Bank and enjoying tremendous success. After achieving their historic victory there and forever foiling the two-state solution and relegating the Palestinians to the fate of the Tibetans, they decided this wasn’t enough.

Heady with their victory, the religious-Zionist right metastasized into sovereign Israel within the Green Line, into the most important centers of power and influence in society – the army, the judiciary and the media.

It hasn’t managed to capture the hearts of the public as it wished, as seen in the total apathy to the proposed annexation of parts of the West Bank. But while the State of Tel Aviv is preoccupied with its own affairs, it has suddenly awakened to the sight of knitted skullcaps nearly everywhere. The settlers have replaced the kibbutzniks. The process, which is still going full force, might now reach another pinnacle: Bennett in the prime minister’s residence.

That’s not the worst imaginable news. There are worse candidates to replace Netanyahu. Bennett’s silence over the removal of annexation from the political agenda and the agreement with the United Arab Emirates might, for example, indicate his pragmatism. But make no mistake: Bennett is the Yamina party and the Yamina party is uncompromising nationalism and racism that will never view the Palestinians as a people with any kind of national rights in their country. In other words, explicit and proud apartheid.

That’s preferable to covert, embarrassed apartheid. Bennett in the prime minister’s residence would ensure that Israel is portrayed as it is. That’s an advantage. But Bennett also means war in Gaza and Lebanon, and Bennett is Bezalel Smotrich, whose statements are reminiscent of patently fascist remarks. Bennett is also Ayelet Shaked, who has wanted to destroy the judicial system and hasn’t yet succeeded.

Amid all these dramatic developments, a popular Israeli opposition movement is flying black flags on highway overpasses. And all it has to say with resolve and in a loud voice is “Anyone but Bibi.”

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